Universal Truths and Cycles, Guided By Voices (Matador)
In the midst of the musically crippled 1980s, Bob Pollard and Guided By Voices, armed only with an unshakable faith in John Lennon, the potent jargon of war, and an abiding love of flying machines, got stewed as bats and sloppily set about the task of remapping the rock-and-roll genome. Obsessively mixing and matching so many disparate sonic elements, GBV developed a brand of arena-ready bubblegum that can only be described as short-form prog. The ease with which GBV tossed off complex two-minute anthems (not to mention their heroic onstage drinking) made them the darlings of true punks and frat boys alike, and Pollard gave voice to this odd appeal in "Quality of Armor," a Beatles-flavored beauty from Propeller. "The worst offense is intelligence," Pollard wailed. "The best defense is belligerence." Lyrically speaking, songs like "Game of Pricks" from Alien Lanes rivaled Dylan at his finest, while tunes like "Radio Show (Trust the Wizard)" managed to both poke fun at and pay homage to drive-time radio and its requisite doses of Pink Floyd and Rush.
But beginning with Under the Bushes Under the Stars, it started to look like the absurdly prolific Pollard had run out of things to say, and keeper singles like Do the Collapse's wickedly catchy "Teenage F.B.I." aside, they were never able to put together an album as complete and cohesive as Bee Thousand. Last year's critically lauded Isolation Drills seemed neither intelligent nor belligerent. In fact, Pollard's lyrics had become decidedly smug. GBV's latest offering, Universal Truths and Cycles, is the closest the steadily shifting lineup of musicians has come to making a front-to-back brilliant LP in a long time. It's almost like a guided tour through the group's discography, beginning with Devil Between My Toes and ending somewhere around Mag Earwig. As usual, this disc finds Pollard sloshed and staring at the stars, and, thanks to the mad guitar skills of Doug Gillard, it has all the monstrous hooks and civilized aggression these self-proclaimed soft-rock renegades are famous for.
Frequent GBV flyers, however, will recognize recycled lyrical material that never quite measures up to vintage Pollard. Occasionally, his lyrics even lapse into the kind of accidental self-parody only Lou Reed can rival. On the other hand, rockers like the disc's first single, "Everywhere With Helicopter," manage to sound fresh in spite of the tried-and-true Pollardisms. "Cheyenne" comes on strong with the same bouncy pop that fueled earlier hits like "The Closer You Are (the Quicker It Hits You)" but without the ominous silliness that made that song great. In fact, all the quirkiness that made songs like "My Valuable Hunting Knife" stick in your head has been excised, making the whole affair duller than it could be and more than a little self-important. Maybe it's finally time for Pollard, well into his 40s, to slow down just a little bit, regroup, and rediscover the wonders of robots, UFOs, and self-inflicted aerial nostalgia. Universal Truths and Cycles would be a career record for most bands, but given the legacy of GBV, it's pretty average stuff, and maybe not even that.
-- Chris Davis
Guided By Voices will be at the Young Avenue Deli Friday, June 7th, with My Morning Jacket and the 45's.
Easy Now, Jeb Loy Nichols (Rykodisc Records)
A Missouri native who's made his home in the U.K. since 1983, Jeb Loy Nichols originally worked as a designer and then fell in with the London reggae scene. His cohorts introduced him to the joys of dub and reggae, and he in turn introduced them to George Jones and Lefty Frizzell. In the '90s, he led the politico-folksy reggae band Fellow Travelers, described by Spin as "the lonesome children of Merle, Marley, and Marx." On his first two critically acclaimed solo outings, he swirled country, R&B, and Jamaican influences into the purest pop songs that side of the Atlantic. On this, his third release, he steps back from the country/reggae hybrid he's renowned for to make some sweet soul music that is mellowness personified. On Easy Now, Nichols croons soul and R&B like the masters, channeling Nat King Cole, Marvin Gaye, and Hank Williams Sr. in his reedy, self-assured manner. Like Terence Trent D'Arby, another expatriate American who found his musical fortune in Europe, Nichols has the ease and confidence that make it all seem effortless. He's a natural. Musically, too, this album reminds me of D'Arby on certain tracks in which funk melds with a soulful backbeat in an almost hypnotic ambience.
Nichols has an urban, thinking man's J.J. Cale groove, adding subtle country and Caribbean touches to this soulful music, which makes it irresistible. (The pure country-pop of the opening track is as luscious and effervescent as strawberry wine.) Barefoot music par excellence, Easy Now gets my vote for the best laid-back listening for summertime 2002. -- Lisa Lumb
The Rough Guide To Bollywood, Various Artists (World Music Network)
The Very Best Bollywood Songs II, Various Artists (Outcaste)
The most outré sonic adventure wouldn't make the composers of Indian film music blink. Churning out songs for the hundreds of musicals that appear every year, these music teams run through more styles per minute than even the headiest mixmaster, so you might want to sample this pair of compilations selectively: The stuff collected herein can make even jaded eardrums do backflips.
The Very Best Bollywood Songs II, with selections ranging from 1949 to the present, is wilder than the Rough Guide collection, with bushy-tailed beats and wigged-out strings springing from every crevice. On "Zindagi Ek Safar," baritone Kishore Kumar even yodels. The Rough Guide To Bollywood is neater both sonically (fewer violin sections) and organizationally (it begins in the '70s and is ordered chronologically). It's also more tuneful: You'd likely find yourself walking around all day humming, say, Asha Bhonsle's "Piya Tu Ab To Aaja" if it weren't followed by Bhonsle and Kishore Kumar's equally catchy "Pyar Diwana Hota Hai." Both discs peak with the same song, "Yeh Dosti Hum Nahin." This theme, from 1975's Sholay, is a sound clash between corn-fed Oklahoma! strings, Ma-and-Pa-Kettle-style banjo-plucking, and a freaked-out synthesizer.
Two testaments to crass commercialization at its most delicious. -- Michaelangelo Matos
Grades: B+ (both albums)
Tangent 2002: Disco Nouveau, Various Artists (Ghostly International)
Hey, are you all right? Gosh, that was a nasty spill you took. Really looked like it hurt. Here, let me help you up. Say, what is that you tripped over, anyway? Oh, Jesus -- not another new electro compilation! I'm so sorry about that. You've really got to keep your eye out for those suckers, you know? They're everywhere.
So it's nice to find one that isn't a mere rehash of the same handful of songs and/or artists à la the comps that have become as ubiquitous in hipster record stores as a Now disc in a Sam Goody. Tangent 2002: Disco Nouveau is a poppy, song-oriented affair, and its artists seem to regard electro with a sense of romance rather than as the hot and sleazy one-night-stand material of most dance-floor-oriented comps. Adult's "Night Life" conveys both the giddiness of clubbing and a tongue-in-cheek distance from it, as do tracks from Susumu Yokota and Lowfish.
And "Make Me," by veteran electro revivalists DMX Krew featuring Tracy, is great pop trash like it oughta be, the Kylie Minogue record you only wish she'd made with Stock/Aitken/Waterman. It might never get on the radio, but don't be surprised if you find yourself falling for -- or over -- it anyway. -- MM